What No One Tells You About Point of View: Part Two, Plot and Voice

Point of view is plot. E. M. Forster says, in his wonderful lecture series/ book Aspects of the Novel, that in a novel with a story, the reader asks, “And then what?” while in a novel with a plot, the readers asks, “Why?” But the trick to creating those questions in your reader has much to do with point of view. The narrator’s perspective or cunning reveals enough to engage while withholding enough to entice. The narrator, that is, through design (storytelling capacity) or circumstance (the limits of his or her own knowledge force limits on the reader’s knowledge), baits the reader. Who that narrator is and when he or she is telling the story will shape the boundaries of the book and thus its plot.

While the characters in a narrative are dealing with ascending levels of problems, attempting solutions that land them back at a bigger problem, the writer of a narrative must grapple similarly, but more successfully, with her own problems. Point of view offers much material for this pursuit.

Think of the story about the blind men and the elephant: one says the elephant is a wall, another a rope, another paper, another a snake, another the trunk of a tree. Each fingers some piece of the beast–side, tail, ear, trunk, and leg, respectively–and each pronounces on the whole.

Your omniscient narrator can show us the entire elephant or dip down into the experience of the man at the ear and then, in the next chapter or a later section, reveal the perspective of the man at the leg.

Your close third sticks to the tail or may pull back to the whole creature, but won’t get over to the trunk.

Your first person narrator delivers you the side, say, and in this way, it might be said that all first person narrators are unreliable, but these days most of our questions are about ourselves anyway, alas, and we appreciate the intimate exercise of believing in our narrator’s version of the world.

Your second person narrator is messing around, tying you up with elephant parts.

Point of view makes demands upon the voice of your work, too.

The first person narrator requires a language of his own. How does he speak? What words does he choose? What tone? What does he notice? (This moves us from language on through to setting.)

The third person narrator may or may not adopt the voice or vocabulary of a character into whose head it goes. It otherwise will have its own voice and vocabulary. Somehow, the more disembodied voices we experience in this age of cell phones and podcasts and voice guidance machinery, the less comfortable we are with the disembodied voice of a narrator, bringing us through a story. Who is this person or creature? Yet the narrator can become transparent; the story is being told but no one is telling it. And even this transparent narrator has a voice. When we talk about like a book or finding it easy or hard to read, we are very often talking about voice.

In Part 3, I will wrap up my discussion of what no one ever tells you about point of view. I welcome any questions people have about craft or things related to writing, and will attempt to address them in future blogs.

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